Isherwood

By Hensher, Philip | The Spectator, May 15, 2004 | Go to article overview

Isherwood


Hensher, Philip, The Spectator


Christopher and his kind ISHERWOOD by Peter Parker Picador, £25, pp. 914, ISBN 0330486993

It's not often that one can recommend a biography of a writer as long as this, particularly since Isherwood was not, in the end, a writer of the first rank. But in this case there is no doubt: this is a book which simply must be read, a triumph which produces from years of dense research a marvellous, immense narrative. Its ultimately stupendous effect is down to the fact that Isherwood, whatever his failings and limitations, was simply there when it counted; old enough to understand the Great War, there at the Opernplatz when the Nazis burnt Heinrich Heine's work, and there in San Francisco for the summer of love and the birth of personal liberation mythologies. Isherwood is not always admirable, not always intelligent, but his story is the story of the 20th century, and his life, in this supremely expert pair of hands, has a thunderous power.

The great thing about homosexuality is that it gets you out of the house. Isherwood said he 'couldn't relax sexually with a member of his own class or nation'. Without that, Christopher Bradshaw-Isherwood might have remained a low-achieving rentier, presiding over the sort of estate which the 20th century generally did for. With it, his life followed quite a different course.

The defining moment of that life, I think, was his meeting with W. H. Auden. Auden was the great intellectual impresario of his generation, apart from his own gigantic merits as a poet. In Isherwood's case, they together undertook a ten-year on-off sexual relationship, in the course of which Auden persuaded Isherwood that it was his destiny to become 'the novelist' of the age.

What part brute sexual infatuation played in this conviction is all too easy to guess; Isherwood, in the partnership, was always the one who found men queuing up for his sexual favours, whereas Auden had to work quite hard to talk them into bed. What is quite clear is that Isherwood took the injunction entirely seriously, and worked hard to fulfil what he thought of as his vocation from the start. His prodigious first novel, All The Conspirators, reads now like a fashionably arty novel which many Huxley-reading aesthetes of the mid-1920s could have produced - its draft title, Landscape with Figures, perfectly summoning up that particular cultural moment. Perhaps the problem with it was the problem many very young novelists have, of the lack of a subject. That was to be solved by Isherwood's next move, to Berlin.

Subsequently, Isherwood always claimed that his move to Berlin at that particular moment was another of those restless moves inspired by lechery: 'Berlin meant Boys', he would later write. Certainly, the wonderful, deathless writing which emerged from this period makes his sexual enthusiasm quite clear, and sums up that particular Kurt Tucholsky/Klaus Mann decadent moment like nothing else in English. But looming behind it, never overdone, always chillingly convincing, is the rise of the Nazis, which makes Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin important books as well as entertaining ones. Of course, we want to know about Sally Bowles and her original, the frightful sounding Jean Ross; but the books gain their resonance from something more solemn and awful. In this period, going through the Berlin rent-boys like a knife through butter, he was always there when it counted; his farewell to Berlin, immediately after the Opernplatz book-burning, has the quality, as told in masterly fashion by Peter Parker, of a Wagnerian exit.

The horror of the European upheaval is represented in Isherwood's life by a truly distressing story, which shows him in a (mostly) admirable light. He had fallen in love with a German, Heinz Neddermeyer, who was justifiably terrified in Nazi Germany - the Nazis, it should be remembered, murdered 600,000 homosexuals. Heinz sounds a complete charmer, despite his hopeless cooking. 'Heinz cooked a Schnitzel here last night. …

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